The 2012 Formula 1 season kicks off this weekend in Melbourne with the Australian Grand Prix. We once again have the good fortune to have Stephen Errity on hand to break down the most interesting stories going into this year’s campaign. Stephen is a lifelong F1 fan and experienced motoring journalist and he spoke to Emmet Ryan discuss the season ahead.
Emmet Ryan: Hi Steve, thanks for joining us as we get ready for the start of the 2012 season. Starting at the top, Sebastien Vettel is favoured to win a third straight championship. If not Vettel, then who?
Stephen Errity: Button. He’s generally underrated but he showed he can rattle Vettel in Canada last year. As long as the McLaren is a good car, he should be the closest challenger but Red Bull’s car advantage may be too big once again.
ER: He probably gets too much criticism because of those Head & Shoulders ads. Moving on to a driver who has been off the grid for some time now but remains a firm fan favourite. Is there any hope of a comeback by Robert Kubica?
SE: At the moment, all signs point to no. Ex-Toro Rosso driver Jaime Alguersuari reported recently that Kubica still has trouble picking up a glass of water with his injured hand, so a racing return of any kind seems a distant possibility right now. He will be one of the great lost talents. Renault and Kubica’s management handled the communication surrounding his injury very poorly, coming out with totally unrealistic deadlines for him to be back in the car and generally not seeming to be reading from the same hymn sheet so that created a lot of false hope.
ER: A sad loss, he was quite the legend. When we were chatting during the week you mentioned issues at Williams. For those not following to closely, what is the situation there?
SE: Williams have sadly been on a steady decline for the past number of years. Older readers will remember them battling Ferrari and McLaren for titles not that long ago but they have been a lower-midfield team for quite some time now. Patrick Head and Frank Williams have been the heart and soul of the team since it began, but both have now stepped back from day to day roles. The MD, and Frank’s anointed successor, is a guy called Adam Parr – a lawyer by training. He’s a very corporate guy and still seems like a bit of an outsider in F1, he’s rubbed some people – including Bernie Ecclestone – the wrong way.
Williams lost their most recent title sponsor (AT&T) and this year they are having to run two drivers who bring significant sponsorship cash – Senna and Maldonado. Neither is anything like as bad as the comedy pay drivers of old (remember Taki Inoue) but neither is a future world champion either. Meanwhile the genuinely promising young gun, Valteri Bottas, has to remain in the test/reserve driver role. Over the winter, williams have reorganised their engineering department and the hope is they’ll hit the ground running with a much better car but unlike some other teams such as Ferrari and Red Bull, Williams as a company exists solely to go motor racing, so it really has to make a success of that. Ferrari traded off its history and road car profits for years from the 80s to the mid-90s, even though it achieved nothing on track. Williams won’t get away with underperforming for that long.
ER: Now on to two former world champions with different motivations. Kimi Raikonnen and Michael Schumacher are both on the grid in 2012, can we expect to see either still knocking around in 2013?
SE: Both of them would like to think so. Schumacher has shown no intention to re-retire at the end of this season, and he is pure gold for Mercedes in marketing and promotional terms, so as long as he’s not embarrassingly bad (and he was much better in 2011 than in 2010) he will probably still be there in 2013. There’s a big question mark over Kimi. On his day, no-one can touch him, but he blows hot and cold. His maverick nature and general disinterest in anything happening outside the car are well documented now, so Lotus must know what they’re getting into. He also has a highly rate team-mate in the form of Romain Grosjean, so it will be interesting to see how what works out. If Grosjean puts his head down and puts more work into developing the car and working with the engineers, he could end up beating Raikkonen and Kimi may turn around and say ‘what’s the point’. There’s no doubt Raikonnen still enjoys racing F1; he doesn’t have to be winning races and championships to be happy.
ER: As soon as you said Maverick I immediately thought of references to who his wingman was and lots of homoeroticism. Just as well I’m asking the questions rather than actually offering opinions. Getting back to the point, this is year 3 for the teams that joined in 2010. Have any made any significant strides to catch up with the rest of the grid?
SE: One has – caterham. Winter testing told the whole story – Caterham did more miles than some of the more established teams, and set good times whereas HRT and Marussia (formerly Virgin) didn’t have their cars ready in time and haven’t done any testing. Caterham are by no means safe either – they’ve had to take on a pay driver in the form of Vitaly Petrov to balance the books. I wouldn’t be surprised to see HRT fold before the season is up. Marussia are on slightly more stable footing, but they could be sold to new owners sooner rather than later – Russian billionaires have a track record of becoming bored with F1.
ER: Finally, it all kicks off in Melbourne this weekend. Where can we expect the more interesting stories on the grid?
SE: Well the first question everyone will want answered is just how fast are the Red Bulls and does anyone else have a hope of catching them?
Other things that should become clear over the first couple of races include:
- Has Hamilton calmed down and found his focus again?
- Will we ever see the confident Felipe Massa of 2008 again or is he a broken man?
- Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg are probably the two closest matched team-mates on the grid (at Force India). It will be a fascinating battle for team supremacy between those two.
- Jean-Eric Vergne at torro rosso is being tipped as the Next Big Thing – but will he be consistent and reliable as well as lightning fast?
And finally – will Marussia and HRT even get within 107 per cent of the pole time in australia?
ER: That’s great Steve and actually I wasn’t entirely honest, there is one final question. You’ve been watching F1 for a long time. To anybody planning on tuning in this weekend. Stay up late or get up early?
SE: Well it all depends if you have Sky [Ed - or Setanta], as BBC don’t have the live rights to this one but these days, they run the Australian race late afternoon Melbourne time, so that makes it a definite get-up early in Europe.